How the growing pervasiveness of social media influences the election season

Photo of voting on social media
Vanessa Lim/Staff

It’s no secret that social media is embedded in modern American life.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, among others, are accessible avenues of information for people to enjoy daily. With a quick refresh, floods of articles, videos and infographics fill timelines and explore pages. While this is convenient for users to receive rapid results on the latest news stories, it also promotes an abyss of dangerous disinformation for people to carelessly digest as truth.

Detailed processes of curating personalized content have been adopted on nearly all social media platforms. Algorithms analyze trends and develop feeds according to an individual’s reaction toward certain topics. But, as this continues over long periods of time, social media gradually becomes a one-sided echo chamber. Views become tunneled, and opinions grow stronger. Slowly but surely, social media creates a subtle yet severe divide within the fabric of American society.

In a 2018 presentation, Facebook admitted that its “algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.”

This, in the backdrop of an impending election, is nothing short of trouble. Wild conspiracy theories, politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic and distorted, taken-out-of-context soundbites only scrape the surface of what people may encounter on social media. According to a survey conducted at Northwestern University, individuals who believe that the COVID-19 disease was created in a Chinese lab were 16% less likely to receive a vaccine than those who didn’t believe it fully or at all.

Amid the chaos of the 2020 election, supporters of President Donald Trump, Democratic candidate Joe Biden and everyone in between seem to walk different Earths, thus creating a minefield of conflicting viewpoints. Each group falls into a pattern of criticizing the other party’s ideas in a highly misleading or simply inaccurate manner, from a degree of trustworthiness to deep-seated corruption. But this continuous spin of information, regardless of accuracy, is the byproduct of social media serving specific headlines to targeted groups who will incontestably engage with it and share it.

The Pew Research Center found that, just following the 2016 election, 64% of adults believed in fake news stories and 23% had fabricated stories themselves. Combined with the emotional reactions and hostility of the current political climate, it is likely that this trend has heightened dramatically.

The cycle doesn’t stop there. Ad hominem lives at the forefront of American public life, slowly trickling into the crevices of dark web social media. The newest example of these unhinged statements include the vile attacks on Biden’s family’s past. Citizens clash the political with the personal. Disagreeing fairly on political perspectives is fair game. The tendency to attack the private life or background of the other is shamefully unproductive, but it is unfortunately becoming normalized.

Elections and all the things leading up to them, such as debates and town halls, are opportunities for candidates to present themselves to the American people. But, when social media skews a voter’s mind to believe that the opposing party is dishonorable, a concerning sense of distrust and unwillingness to listen floats among decided and undecided voters. Where does that leave the American traditions of democracy and decency?

Social media undoubtedly holds extensive capacities to effectively inform people from all walks of life. Its far-reaching platform can unite citizens, relay pressing information upon need and provide rich resources on current events. Recently, in Southern California, social media users quickly informed voters about fake ballot boxes being placed around the region. Because of this, many people avoided mistakenly casting their mail-in ballots in unofficial bins. This is precisely the type of good social media can do.

So, things most definitely can improve, but not without work.

There is not an immediate, one-size-fits-all solution for the tricky intersection of social media and elections. But, to begin, if social media is redirected toward creating civic progress rather than demonization of political opponents, it adds more value than harm. Gone would be the petty jabs and outright dishonesty. It is Americans — voters, consumers, app developers and analysts — who control the role social media will play in this and future elections. And it can be better than what it is now.

Ultimately, a baseless, ill-informed tweet or post has no weight unless it is given. That must not be forgotten.

Contact Ashley Tsai at [email protected].